Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sportswriting and Being Wrong

There's currently a pretty great series going on at Slate at the moment (which is no stranger to great series) about being wrong. So far Kathryn Schulz has interviewed Alan Dershowitz (couldn't admit being wrong in any important way), Diane Ravitch (who considers herself wrong on a deeply important, particular issue) and most recently, the sportswriter Joe Posnanski. The series is great, and I highly recommend people check it out. Posnanski straddles a place of wrongness between Ravitch and Dershowitz: He's wrong often about real tangible things, but how important is it for a sportswriter to be right?
I do think, though, that a big part of the job is how you handle being wrong. Are you upfront about it? Do you play it off? Do you try to defend yourself? Every time you write anything, at least half your readers are going to disagree with you. A big part of sports writing is how you respond to that tension.
Obviously this is an issue in sportswriting as opposed to things like music criticism or film writing because prediction is hugely built into the sportswriting culture. ESPN and Sports Illustrated regularly run features about which teams are probably going to the playoffs, which team is the best in the league at the moment, who will win a particular game, etc. This is built into narratives about games -- a writer wants to illustrate the advantages one team might have over another team to give the reader more insight into the conflict. This is also about broader issues in the culture; gambling on sports is very popular, and sportswriters need to contend with readers who respond to sporting events through the (totally legitimate imo) prism of gambling on outcomes. To a lesser extent, fantasy sports are very popular, and someone like Matthew Berry is wrong multiple times during a season when he predicts a particular player will boom or bust for his fantasy team owners.

I think we can agree though that where Diane Ravitch was wrong (she was a huge proponent of No Child Left Behind and later decided that NCLB was incredibly destructive to the American education system) was much bigger an issue than a sportswriter that is wrong, even if that sportswriter might cost an individual gambler millions of dollars on a game. By contrast, a music critic is never really wrong. I guess he could predict that a band will break up, or that an artist is heading in one artistic direction but then shifts into another, but those stakes are terribly low and we don't really expect music critics to predict anything. We expect them to offer judgement on the quality of a piece of music, to contextualize that music historically, to describe it aesthetically, to proffer great writing about music (all sorts of things, really) but rarely would we say that a music writer is wrong unless we disagreed with their critical judgement.

Interestingly, that kind of being wrong Posnanski never touches on. Surely people must feel Bill Simmons is wrong for being a Patriots and Celtics fan (like me! I think he's super wrong for rooting for Boston teams when clearly Philadelphia is the superior sports city), but we file that kind of wrongness differently (subjectively, versus objective incorrectness). I have to imagine that both kinds of wrongness get folded together, though. Posnanski writes:
The nastiest e-mails I get tend to be when I've picked a team to lose and then it wins. For the fans, winning is great, but proving somebody wrong is even better.
Ie: The fan isn't just upset that Posnanski predicted incorrectly and cost them gambling money, but they were upset that Posnanski didn't love the team as much as they did -- and now that the team has made good, they are taking Posnanski to task for his subjective aesthetic failure through the legitimate complaint of an objective predictive failure.

The other odd thing is that complaining that a sportswriter predicted the result of a game incorrectly is not really legitimate at all. We shouldn't expect sportswriters to predict gaming outcomes correctly. We even have idioms culturally built-in to discuss how random and difficult-to-predict sporting events are. Stuff like "On any given Sunday, any team can beat any other team." Huge narrative tropes in sportswriting (like a team having a Cinderella story) are lodged in the knowledge that teams often surprise you, and that underdogs can win games. I think Schulz suspects this, because she asks Posnanski during the interview, "Is that part of what drives our deep love of underdogs—the fact that we have a shot not just at winning but at proving other people wrong?"

But she's missing that wrongness is not just something a sportswriter will deal with in the course of an otherwise successful predictive career (like a weatherman), but is something that is built into the discourses of sportswriting. A sportswriter HAS to be wrong because otherwise the stories are boring. The real mission of sportswriters is the same mission that music critics have -- write interesting prose that people want to read. Something that makes that prose interesting is being wrong, and interacting with fans about being wrong, and designing sports narratives that fans will enjoy reading and arguing about. In that sense, it's hard to call any kind of sportswriting wrongness as wrongness at all -- if you're wrong in order to succeed, then you're not really wrong. You're performing wrongness to get at a broader truth, to be really right about how to write about sports. No one wants to read a sportswriter who is always right for the same reason that no one wants to watch a professional sports team play an amateur once-a-month company sports team. The outcome doubt is built into the fandom.

Posnanski doesn't discuss what happens when he's really wrong -- ie: When he's pitched a story that his editors rejected, or he thought something would interest his readers but they totally ignored it, or he made an argument about something that he later decided was fallacious and silly, etc. He only really discusses what happens when he's performatively wrong -- ie; When he was really right all along. (These stories are kinda examples of being actually wrong, though. Like getting the details of a story incorrect. Those are legit wrongness. And here, where he associates his Slate story with Instant Replay, also gets at something authentic, though also super fraught. Can an Umpire ever be wrong -- even if the Instant Replay shows that he's wrong? J.L. Austin post to come, eventually.)